Ballet changed my life: Billy who?

Troubled inner-city kids whose lives are changed by dance: you probably feel you've seen the film and watched the musical. But, says James Rampton, Ballet Hoo! has its own story to tell - and it's as relevant to 21st-century Birmingham as 16th-century Verona
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The Independent Online

Twelve snarling teenage boys - six from one gang of tearaways and the other half-dozen from their rivals across town - are laying into each other with lethally sharpened sticks. They are throwing themselves into this activity with an almost gleeful gusto. But despite the mayhem apparently being caused, there is no sound of police sirens screaming, no sign of the riot squad appearing over the horizon. For this seemingly dirty dozen clad in Kangol hats and reversed baseball caps are not bruisers, but ballet-dancers.

Playing the followers of the Montagues and the Capulets, they are in the midst of a complex, beautifully choreographed routine. It is set to be one of the highlights of a forthcoming performance of the celebrated Kenneth MacMillan production of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

These lads are just 12 of the 200-odd youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds in the West Midlands and the Black Country who, almost two years ago, signed up for Ballet Hoo! - a groundbreaking programme of classes that combine personal development with the study of classical ballet. As you can see, the project is all about overturning preconceptions.

The youngsters' progress has been captured by Channel 4's cameras and will be shown in a new four-part series, called Ballet Changed My Life: Ballet Hoo!, starting on Wednesday 20 September and culminating in the Romeo and Juliet production, which will also be broadcast on C4.

This is not a vehicle for wannabes desperate for their 15 minutes of fame - neither are the young people chosen, Pop Idol-style, via a series of humiliating auditions. Rather, these youngsters have been selected for the scheme by their local councils in Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. Ballet Hoo! is being run in conjunction with Youth at Risk, a charity that specialises in the care and rehabilitation of troubled children. A network of 200 voluntary life coaches is available 24 hours a day to help the youngsters, who are aged between 14 and 19, through this highly demanding programme.

Among the young participants are the teenagers Jonathan, Cesia, Katie and Alex. I have followed this quartet over the past 18 months. During that period, I have seen them grow from initial reticence to outright and infectious passion. Proving that ballet is about more than tantrums and tiaras, the four are a testament to the transformative power of art.

In a break from sword-fighting practice, they come over for a chat. The atmosphere within the BRB rehearsal room is hot and airless and beads of sweat dot the youngsters' foreheads. It's February 2006, but despite their weariness after so many months' work, they are still bubbling with enthusiasm. Jonathan, a 16-year-old boy with corn-rows in his hair, is wearing huge white trainers and an outsized red basketball shirt that dwarves his slight frame. "It's such a rush doing this," he says. "It feels so skilled, like a real achievement. If you'd asked me a few months ago if I'd be doing something like this, I'd have said, 'No way, ballet is just posh people prancing about in tights.' But now I love it, and I can see that ballet is for everyone."

Cesia, 16, is a school friend of Jonathan's from Wolverhampton who, like him, is just weeks away from her GCSEs. A bright girl with lustrous dark hair and shimmering brown eyes, she chips in that, "When I told my friends about this project, they just burst out laughing. But I think it's great. We're showing people that teenagers don't just hang about on street corners in hoodies causing trouble."

Katie, a vivacious 18-year-old from Dudley, adds that Ballet Hoo! has given her much more than a working knowledge of pas de deux and pliés. "This project has taught me so much. It's shown me that I can do things I never thought I could. This draws you out of yourself without you even noticing. Now I can see the benefits of all the intensive training and the life coaching. What's good is that they never spoon-feed you - they just leave it up to your imagination. It's taken me weeks to understand what I've gained, but I've finally got it!"

Alex, a lively 19-year-old lad from Sandwell, is wearing a Burberry cap and a short-sleeved England football shirt that reveals a torrent of tattoos cascading down his arm. He sports three rings in each ear and a stud bolted through his eyebrow.

He can absolutely relate to the stories of gang warfare that are central to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare's themes of dysfunctional families, teenage suicide, youthful rebellion and going out with someone your parents disapprove of are equally resonant for the other youngsters participating in Ballet Hoo! For 16th-century Verona, read 21st-century Birmingham. (omega)

Admitting that in the past he has been a trouble-maker, Alex says that, "Every day, we'd have that feeling inside that we wanted to fight. We'd walk around the streets looking for somebody. We'd just walk over and provoke them. Then everyone would jump in. I look back at it now and it's just wrong."

He, too, has made some remarkable progress over the past 18 months. "I was in college before," he says, "but I dropped out because of a lack of dedication. Now I want to do something with my life. I'd like to get into the performing arts. I've really got a sense of motivation from doing this. For me, this has been a life-changing experience."

Our conversation is interrupted as Desmond Kelly, the assistant director at the BRB who is directing the production, calls the youngsters back to rehearsals. A sprightly man whose silvery hair is mirrored by the glint in his eye, Kelly marshals his performers with a genuine sense of relish. "Right," he barks jovially at his charges and the assembled gathering of students, "now we're going to show 'em how it's done."

On his command, Jonathan, Alex and the other 10 boys set about each other with rare panache in complete unison. As their wooden blades rend the air of the BRB rehearsal-room at the Hippodrome Theatre in central Birmingham, their movements are perfectly in sync with Prokofiev's music. As the boys' routine ends in a flourish of flashing wood, their fellow students burst into spontaneous applause.

If it is not quite poetry in motion - their movements are still more Kanye West than Rudolf Nureyev - there is nevertheless something undeniably uplifting about witnessing this delicate and expressive routine. Even hardened series producer Michael Waldman, responsible for such award-winning work as The House, Operatunity and Musicality, owns up to being affected by such moments. "When you see these youngsters with no previous training doing these twiddles and twirls and leaps and bounds, it really is moving," he says. "There is something about the purity of ballet, the perfect meshing of music and movement - it demonstrates that human emotions can be portrayed without any words. You can do it all with a facial expression and an arc of the arm. The precision of the music and the choreography can be applied to the lives of people with chaotic backgrounds. It shows that you can make harmony out of chaos. Last week, when I was watching the young people perform, I found myself with a tear in my eye. I think of myself as a ruthless producer who manipulates wherever necessary - I must be getting soppy and sentimental."

It has taken a lot of hard work for the youngsters to reach this point - and the project has certainly not always inspired such positive feelings. Let's be honest, at first sight Ballet Hoo! seems like a daft scheme (it is undoubtedly a daft title). What could be more preposterous than the idea of trying to persuade troubled youngsters out of hoodies and into tights?

"Think of three words least likely to go together, and you might come up with 'disadvantaged', 'teenagers' and 'ballet'," Keith Horsfall, the project director, says with a smile. "With the possible exception of Beethoven's late string quartets, classical ballet is the most disciplined and least street-cred of all art forms. It makes everyone think 'poofs in tights'. But the challenge of this programme is to overcome those prejudices and get these young people to identify with an apparently alien world."

At first, it did indeed appear to be an excessively tall order. Kelly concedes that, "After the first session with 200 youngsters, I said to myself, 'No way.' I thought, 'These people are not used to being disciplined. We've bitten off more than we can chew here.'"

I first encountered the youngsters early last year, when they were beginning the personal-development course they had to complete before embarking on the ballet. Some of them had real problems with authority and such apparently simple requests as being asked to sit at the front of the lecture-hall rather than the back prompted fiery walk-outs.

However, listening to some of the children's revelations about their backgrounds gives you an understanding of why they can be so touchy. It was September 2005 and I was sitting in on the "tough love" personal-development lessons being conducted by Youth at Risk mentors at the Drum Arts Centre, Birmingham.

Denise Pullian, a dreadlocked American life coach for Youth at Risk, emphasised the importance of the children giving voice to the issues that were disturbing them. "It isn't that it goes away. All those feelings about what has happened in their lives bleed out in their behaviour, bleed out in their relationships. Now they have an opportunity to get some of this stuff out, so they can look again at themselves and their past and see things they couldn't before. They get to let this stuff go and move past it."

During Pullian's class, the boxes of tissues that were being circulated by crew-members took a hammering. One 14-year- old girl told her shocked colleagues that she had been pining for her mother since she had been murdered by her father when the girl was just two years old. Then, in a particularly heartbreaking moment, Katie tried to explain why she had repeatedly cut herself since being raped as a six-year-old and then continually sexually abused. With one arm swathed in bandages, she told of her deep sense of shame that she couldn't bring herself to tell anyone about the crime until she was 13.

After her devastating confessional, she tells me, "Before this group even became friends, we told each other deeply personal things that we had never told anyone else. It was very tough to reveal that stuff, but I found it relieving. One minute you think, 'I'm absolutely not going to stand up in front of this group,' and the next you're telling them everything. It makes you feel really free. You think, 'I can say this stuff and I won't get judged for it.'" Katie is now taking a National Diploma in Drama and is hoping to go to Aberystwyth to study performing arts.

Another teenager, a feisty 18-year-old girl called Leah, tells me after the session that, "I'd stopped trusting people, but coming to these classes, you have to start trusting people. I used to be the sort of person who said, 'That's crap - I'm gone.' Now I'm studying for a National Certificate in Health and Social Care. I'm more responsible. The people I used to hang out with weren't good for me. I've brushed them off. They've got no life goals. I've got goals now - it's like I've grown up. I want to be surrounded by people who go to university and drive cars."

The one thing everyone behind Ballet Hoo! is keen to avoid is the B-word: Billy Elliot. "This is not about finding a new ballet star," Horsfall asserts. "Ballet just acts as a catalyst for these young people to realise that there is more to life than hanging about on street corners."

Cesia confirms that the scheme has had a seismic impact on her outlook. "It has changed my perspective about people. Some kids look threatening at first, but once you get to know them, they're not at all scary. I've made friends here with people I would never have talked to before."

For Alex, the project has also helped dispel that myth about ballet being merely for limp-wristed sissies. "You hear that every day," he says, "but when you can lift someone into the air without any struggle, come back to me. It takes an amazing amount of strength. Ballet dancers are just incredible athletes."

Of course, there have been failures along the way. Around 120 of the original 200 have dropped out. But the remaining 80 will be involved in the performance of Romeo and Juliet, either as members of the cast or behind the scenes.

Cesia, for example, will be part of the corps de ballet, Katie is being lined up for a character role (these will be finally decided closer to the performance date) and - in a radical departure from the original MacMillan production - Jonathan and Alex will be employing their athleticism in a radical, breakdancing reinterpretation of the famous mandolin sequence.

Laura Purkiss, one of the professional BRB dancers helping to train the youngsters, enthuses that their "progress has been amazing. When we started, they were stuck against the wall. When I suggested pliés, they said, 'I'm not having anything to do with ballet.' So we had to break down barriers. We started with hip-hop music. They did some bending to that and, before they knew it, that was a plié. We sort of tricked them. Now you can see the glimmer of genuine passion in their eyes. Some of them could now take what they've learnt very far in the world of dance. They've acquired real focus."

Desmond Kelly says that he has benefited from the experience, too. "It's taught me an awful lot. I've learnt that these youngsters are decent people. You read in the press about how they're all yobs, but if this is a cross-section of that part of society, then that's absolutely not true. They have so much more to offer than the media makes out - all they need is to be given the opportunity. This project has taught me not to judge a book by its cover. You need to go beyond the stereotype."

At the end of another energy-sapping breakdancing rehearsal in July, I meet up for the final time with the quartet I have been following. It's the hottest day of the year, but that has done nothing to dull the troupe's energy. Dressed in vests and tracksuit bottoms, they spin on their heads before cartwheeling about the place in a dangerous-looking criss-cross routine. Their mandolin dance looks likely to bring the house down on the night. As Kelly cries out "bravo" at the end, the smiles on the faces of Jonathan and Alex could best be described as ecstatic.

At the start of the project, one of their friends - a shy, overweight lad called Andy, who has lived in care since the age of eight - declared to his fellow students: "What I want to gain is to be a somebody, not a nobody." Andy is not alone in achieving that goal. Cesia beams that, "Everyone thinks teenagers just sit in their rooms being moody all the time. But we can be committed and we can do something good. This is giving us something to focus on and stops us worrying about other stuff in our lives."

Just before I go, I pose Jonathan a final question: "If there is one lesson you've learnt from Ballet Hoo!, what would it be?" He pauses, before breaking into a broad smile: "Just say 'Yes.'"

'Ballet Changed My Life: Ballet Hoo!' begins on Channel 4 on 20 September. Tickets for 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 28 September are available at www.brb.org.uk

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